Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
From Ariel published by Harper & Row, 1966. Copyright © 1966 by Ted Hughes. All rights reserved.
I’ve found myself rather at an affinity with the confessional lyric style of Sylvia Plath and Morning Song, as the very first poem of hers I read, is truly one of my favourites. The opening line: ‘love set you going like a fat gold watch’ instantly confirms to us as readers that time is a dominant theme in this particular poem, creating a simile between the birth of the child and the progression of time behind the glass disc of a watch. Plath ultimately recognizes, as the mother of this child, that the infant is the occupant of a completely separate facet of space to herself and it’s own span of time will continue to shrink until the child’s eventual death. The poem in this sense deal with simply that: the value but constrictions of time and the role and station of living things in that finite space. The depiction of the watch as being ‘gold’ really emphasizes the true value of time which – like gold in the sense of monetary wealth – can be both one’s best friend but also their worst enemy. Time can be viewed as a positive, in reference to ‘all the good times’ someone has had in their life in their own nostalgic memory and also on a larger and more objective scale in that time has allowed society to continuously morph and develop over the course of history. But there is also the more morbid face of time in it’s abstract nature. Time is arguably by definition finite, it implies a beginning and an end and this is the kind of time which Plath aims to address in Morning Song.
From my first reading of this poem I have always inferred that although the plosive and begrudging language used to depict the mother’s ‘stumble from bed, cow-heavy’, she is aware that she will grow to miss the disruptions to her daily life inflicted by the infant child. The child’s cry gives the mother the purpose to dote and nurture, but throughout maturity our dependence on the this intensity of our mother’s role in our life tends to fade somewhat. Plath’s poignant awareness of the child’s inevitable independence from her as it grows is further highlighted through the third stanza in which Plath declares ‘I am no more your mother / than the cloud that distills a mirror.’ She expresses an acceptance that the child is not purely an extension of herself as her reflection in a mirror but it’s own being with it’s own – as depicted gorgeously in the final stanza – ‘handful of notes’ with ‘clear vowels [that] rise like balloons’ which creates both a beautifully peaceful but also distressing image of the mother’s child floating away from her with their independence and resources of language acquisition and the like in tow; to begin taking their own direction in life autonomously.